An article in Tuesday morning Times Picayune article announced how the Saints earned the NFC’s number one seed in the playoffs after Minnesota dropped what may have been the most exciting Monday Night Football game of the season.
Earned is the TP sports-page’s word, certainly not mine.
Had the New Orleans Saints managed to squeak out a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon, it could be said that they earned their coveted spot. Instead, the Black and Gold was embarrassed by a two-win team and it took the hated Chicago Bears, the same team that stopped the Saints’ Super Bowl drive and whose fans mocked the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, nudged New Orleans over the finish line.
Stumbled and bumbled would be more suitable words to earned.
Am I being too harsh on the Saints? Perhaps.
But if the Saints perform in the NFC playoffs in the same manner by which they are closing out the regular season, then this fan will be converting a booked flight to south Florida into a $200 Southwest Airlines credit sooner than later.
While I might seem ungrateful considering that they have accumulated an unprecedented number of wins and possess their first-ever full homefield advantage in franchise history, there is much room for improvement.
The same Saints team that took the field against Tampa Bay, Washington and Saint Louis couldn’t beat any of the NFC teams slated for post-season play.
Starting with the Miami game, opposing running backs have enjoyed career games against the Saints’ defense while the Black and Gold’s offensive ground game has ground to a halt.
Granted the Saints have been hobbled with injuries. Running backs Reggie Bush and Mike Bell have spent a lot of time on the shelf; defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy was placed on IR while fellow DT Sedrick Ellis has had recurring knee issues; wide receiver Lance Moore has spent much more time on the sideline than on the field; the linebacker corps has been riddled with injuries and finally starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer have been out a good bit in the season’s second-half.
With the first-round bye and homefield now secured, the Saints banged up squad has two weeks to heal up before they play the game that will determine whether the Saints host their first NFC Championship or begin speculating earlier than they would like what to do with their late draft pick in the first round.
The relevance of their regular season finale against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte has evolved much over the past two weeks.
Going into the Saturday night showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, the week 17 match-up was a milestone en route to giving the 1972 Miami Dolphins in the NFL history book.
After losing to the Buccaneers, it was the game the Saints needed to win in order to lock-up homefield for the playoffs.
Thanks to the Bears, the game has assumed a “pre-season game four” identity, with starters expected to play sparingly to minimize the potential for injury to key players.
The Saints should be grateful that the game no longer has playoff seeding implications as the Panthers have won their past two contests with a combined score of 67-16 against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants.
The Saints first-string would have had trouble beating a reinvigorated Panthers team under replacement, perhaps on a permanent basis, quarterback Matt Moore and their duo of 1,000-yard running backs. Their stingy pass-defense, 4th in the league, would not have mad matters any easier.
This Sunday, the Saints could be getting their first glimpse at their biggest threat for repeating as the NFC South division champions next season.
Six Shoulda, Five Were
Hopefully the five Saints players selected for the Pro-Bowl will not actually play in the game. Congratulations to starters quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans and free safety Darren Sharper and to back-ups middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and tackle Jon Stinchcomb. That defensive end Will Smith was snubbed is a major disappointment. Smith, who has comeback after an injury-plagued 2008 season, is second in the conference in sacks with 13, a half behind Minnesota’s Jared Allen. That Smith was not chosen as a reserve is inexcusable.